"The Spirit" opens tomorrow, and I want to let everyone know that I think it looks horrible before it does. I usually don't like to criticize a movie before it opens, but my disappointment is based more on artistic direction than plot (so far, at least) so I feel like I'm on solid ground.
Some background for those unfamiliar with The Spirit: The Spirit is a masked crime fighter who always reminded me of The Shadow, but without the mystic zen mind control skills. Basically he's a vigilante operating with the tacit approval of the chief of police. The whole thing had a kind of whimsical air to it, including some comical romantic entanglements, among those a femme fatalle or two as well as the chief's daughter.
What you need to know is that The Spirit was created, written and drawn by Will Eisner, the godfather of comics, in 1940. Eisner is a very important figure in American comics, so much so that the medium's top awards are called the Eisners. Among other achievements, Eisner created what is widely considered to be the first graphic novel (A Contract with God), and the first academic treatise on comics as a full-fledged artistic form (Comics and Sequential Art). Suffice it to say that Eisner had an artistic vision; he was, as cinephiles say, an auteur.
Since Eisner's original vision for The Spirit there have been a couple of mostly forgettable new offerings, but we'll go ahead and forget about all of those until 2007, when Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone began a new ongoing series of Spirit stories. Both Cooke and Bone are also auteurs in their own right, and their rebirth of The Spirit was both immensely stylish and evocative of the original. (Cooke, and to a slightly lesser degree, Bone, do fantastic brush work for their inks which simultaneously creates motion and action while being very bold and firm. As someone who likes good strong inks in his comics, I appreciate them a great deal.)
So that leaves us with two laudable and respectable visions for the The Spirit already floating around the ether being beautiful when Frank Miller decides he's going to direct his very first film ever and that it's going to be a re-imagining of The Spirit. Why? Now 99% of the world is going to associate The Spirit with this confused muddle of shadows instead of either of the two previous, wonderful versions. I feel the same way about Miller's movie as I do about those prudes that ran around putting plaster fig leaves over naked statues fiddly bits. It's taking something beautiful and making it ugly for nothing. Of all the things Miller could do (and hell, he's still got whole volumes of his own Sin City stories he could be putting on celluloid) why does he pick territory that's already got some respectable artistic banners planted on it? He might as well have cut his directing chops on Casablanca II: The Return of Rick!
You know how upset everyone was when Spielberg and Lucas ruined their childhoods by making a bad fourth Indiana Jones film? Imagine how people would feel if some newbie director had decided that he was going to make Indy IV his first movie, and he did it using nothing but consumer-grade camcorders and costumes scavenged from neighbors' closets. That's how I feel about Miller pulling this new version of the Spirit out of his fundament. Have some respect for those who went before you.
I get it, Miller's got his own artistic vision. (Which revolves almost entirely around high contrast.) Sometimes it works. Some of that Sin City stuff is pretty cool. He certainly knows how to use negative spaces to define shapes better than anyone else drawing comics. But (A) not everything that works on a paper a few inches wide works on a screen many feet wide, (B) it can be done well on film (see the gorgeous Renaissance) but Miller didn't manage to do it, and (C) why use that vision to redefine something that's already been so well executed by others?
We've gone from this (Eisner and Cooke, respectively):
... to this: